Monday, September 23, 2019

Challenging Colonial Power – Indian Labour Struggle Indian Migration - Janarthani Arumugam


I am so honoured to have an avid researcher on Malayan labour movement struggle, Janarthani Arumugam, contributing to this blog. I drive most of my inspiration to maintain this blog through our discussions. It is my honour to have her articles published at this site. 


Challenging Colonial Power – Indian Labour Struggle Indian Migration by Janarthani Arumugam


The British colonial economy was built on the backs of oppressed people from all parts of its dominions. Indian migration started as early as 1870s with the expansion of sugar plantations in Province Wellesley and Perak which demanded cheap, accessible and pliable labour from South India[i]. This dependence on plantation labour by colonial capitalists had a profound impact on colonial Indian subjects, specifically from Southern India. This is reflected in the four million journeys undertaken from 1840 – 1940[ii]. By 1957, Indians constituted roughly 11 percent of the population of Malaya and Singapore in 1957[iii].
Indian Population in the Straits Settlements and the Federated States in Malaya 

1901  - 120,000 
1947 - 600,000 
1957 - 820,000 
Source: Rajeswary Ampalavar 

According to Ampalavar, Indian migrants were characterized as transitory; they were expected to return to India once their indenture ended. In addition to this, the fragmentation based on caste, class and ethnic lines was a serious deterrent to collective politicization among community.

The Self-Respect Movement

The ‘Self-Respect’ political movement gained prominence and popular support among South Indians of Tamil descent in Malaya since the 1920’s. E. V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar’ promoted ‘no god; no religion; no Gandhi; no Congress; and no Brahmins’ in his movement[iv] after disillusionment with the Indian National Congress’s failure to abolish casteism.

His visit to Malaya in 1929 brought about the establishment of ‘Tamil associations, dedicated to moral, religious, and social reform’ led by journalists, teachers and kanganies (labour supervisors on plantations) in Malaya[v]. Newspapers such as Munnetram (1929), Sreethirutham (1931) and Tamil Murasu (1935) propagated writings on ‘anti-casteism, hegemony of Brahmanism, educational and health improvement, abolishment of religious rituals such as ‘kavadi’ bearing and firewalking, promoting monogamous Hindu marriages and the emancipation of women.’ 




His visit in Malaya, Ramaswamy took part in several conferences and one of the most important was the All-Malaya Tamils Conference (Akila Malaya Tamiḻar Mānāṭu) where some of the resolutions listed below were made, reflecting Self Respect ideals. Among the resolutions were[vi]:

1. This conference opines that Tamil weddings should be conducted in a thrifty way and should be conducted in the mother tongue;…

2. This conference supports widow remarriage and asks that everyone in Tamil society will too. The Straits Settlements has made this legal, and we will petition the Federated Malay States to follow likewise;…

3. All Tamils in Malaya should, regardless of their country of origin, come together and embrace the Tamil language as one.


Self-Respect marriages were highlighted in Tamil Murasu which reported the first marriage in Penang (1930). These unions allowed ‘people the freedom to restructure their own life around Self-Respect instead of being slaves to the rules prescribed by authoritative Brahmanical tenets’. 



Figure 1: 'Reformed Couples': Pictures of a Couple who were Married under the Auspices of the Self-Respect Movement, TM, 30/6/1936. Source : Dinesh Sathisan (2008)



[i] Amrith, S. S. (2010). Indians Overseas? Governing Tamil Migration to Malaya 1870-1941. Past & Present, 208(1), 231–261.

[ii] Sandhu, K.S. (1965). Indians in Malaya.

[iii] Ampalavar, R. (1981). The Indian Minority and Political Change in Malaya 1945 – 1947.

[iv] Alagirisamy, D. (2015). The Self-Respect Movement and Tamil Politics of Belonging in Interwar British Malaya, 1929–1939. Modern Asian Studies, 50(05), 1547–1575.

[v] Ampalavar, R. (1969). Social and Political Developments in the Indian Community of Malaya, 1920 – 41. MA Thesis. University Malaya.

[vi] Sathisan, D. (2008). The Power of Print: Tamil Newspapers in Malaya and the Imagining of Tamil Cultural Identity, 1930 – 1940. MA Thesis. National University of Singapore.

Challenging Colonial Power – Indian Labour Struggle Indian Migration - Janarthani Arumugam

I am so honoured to have an avid researcher on Malayan labour movement struggle, Janarthani Arumugam, contributing to this blog. I drive ...